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Elisso Virsaladze: Les Pianos de la Nuit
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856) Kreisleriana, op.16
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953) Piano sonata no. 2 in D minor, op.14; Sarcasms no. 3, op.17; Toccata in D minor, op.11
Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Natha-Valse in A major, op.51
Elisso Virsaladze (piano)
Rec. live 8 August 2004, La Roque d’Arthéron, France. DVD Region 0.
Co-production between ARTE France / France 3 / Mezzo / Ideale /Naïve
NAÏVE DR 2117 [69.26]


Anyone who has spent some time on the European continent in the last couple of years, and has had access to the French produced TV channel Mezzo, might conceivably have come across the films in this rapidly expanding series. My introduction was the film of Paul Lewis playing Schubert sonatas - very well too, it should be said - on a stiflingly close spring afternoon in Bucharest last year. Since then I have hoped to further the acquaintance more generally. Within the series there seems a fondness for Liszt, Schubert and Schumann.

And I certainly have not heard Schumann playing like this for some time, indeed maybe ever before. Kreisleriana is launched into with such pace and ferocity as to knock you sideways during the first few bars. Virsaladze’s conception holds nothing back, yet is not just a pyrotechnical display of technique at the expense of interpretation. The inner recesses of the work are all the more apparent because of the contrasts created by such an approach. Whether you like this in terms of Schumann playing or not, there is no denying its provocative nature – almost as if Virsaladze is saying, “So you thought you knew Schumann ...”  As an aside, it’s interesting that Sviatoslav Richter – who certainly did know his Schumann – thought hers “beyond comparison”; despite taking quite a different approach himself.

The three Prokofiev works form a counterpoint to the Schumann, and reveal Virsaladze on home ground. The sonata appears a curiously impersonal work as Virsaladze presents it: composed and played for one person only, so that you feel as if you are overhearing thoughts which you should not really know about. Visually too this might also be the case, as you get side profiles and full-facials from almost too close a range. Virsaladze is far from facially expressive, eyes clamped shut as, one senses, and she evaluates her own playing from within. Occasionally an eyebrow twitches, indicating maybe a thought of ‘hmm ... how long should I really hold this note for?’ or ‘maybe that chord was too loud?’ The keyboard and finger-work make rare appearances.

The Sarcasms, brief though they individually are, amount to five humorous jokes but again, jokes that Prokofiev only seems to intend for himself and the pianist. Their mood is not open humour, rather bitter and mordant, allowing the pianist opportunities for inflection and intimation rather than plain statement of fact through the playing. This is particularly well captured in Smanioso, Sarcasm no. 4. Against this almost self-mocking sound-world, the Toccata that concludes the Prokofiev selection appears of more regular character. Its inclusion primarily demonstrates, for me at least, the range of Prokofiev’s skill as a keyboard composer. The impression left would have been notably different without it.

Some may consider it strange to programme Tchaikovsky, the ultimate heart-on-sleeve Russian, after the Prokofiev’s detached and inward humour. In her choice of the Natha-Valse Virsaladze serves somehow to link the sound-worlds of both previous composers and create a synthesis out of diverse material.

The series ‘concept’ (since nothing is marketed these days without one) is relatively simple: take pianists, established and emerging, in repertoire that both suits them and provides interesting internal contrasts; place them in an outdoor arena at La Roque d’Arthéron and film the concert. An audience is present, though reduced to some 150 because of the filming. However as with most simple concepts there are complicated aspects: the recordings are done ‘in the round’ using remote-controlled cameras, thereby allowing maximum visual detail to be captured with the minimum of interference with the performer. 

I found some of the trailers for other releases off-putting with their tendency to float you at odd angles seemingly a foot or so above an open-topped concert grand, though the playing all too briefly points to directions for further exploration: Lise de la Salle on “Les pianos de demain” and Vanessa Wagner.

And then there’s the documentation in French and English you get with the DVD. There are notes on the “unique experiment” of the Festival at La Roque d’Arthéron, the filming process, an artist mini-biography and a criticism of the performance given by the Georgian “warrior poetess”. I am not against any of this, per se, even of the fact my job as critic has been done for me to some extent – in the end the listener will decide if the artist has really “made this music her own” or “absorbed these pages down to the faintest sigh”. What is missing is something about the music itself, given “the originality and boldness of the repertoire […] that was the criterion” for producing the DVD in the first place.

My advice is to leave all the surrounding ‘stuff’ behind and concentrate on the performance – it’s what counts after all and it could prove a real ear-opener. The faint-hearted are warned that a firecracker is lit upon pressing ‘play’, so stand well back.

Evan Dickerson







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